AUSTIN — The search for solutions to school shootings continued in the wake of the recent deadly attack in Florida, but President Donald Trump suggested a fix Texas is already using.
“It’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them,” Trump said in a meeting following the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead and more than a dozen wounded. “They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone.”
The suggestion drew fire from Rob D’Amico, a spokesman for the Texas AFT, a teachers union, who said “it’s an unwise move” and that for his members, “it’s not something they want.”
But despite reservations and what some experts say is a lack of evidence that such policies curb school shootings, Texas has since 2013 allowed districts to appoint specially trained employees as armed, licensed school marshals.
Craig Bessent with Wylie ISD in Abilene said arming staff members is good idea.
“School marshals are vetted pretty well,” and must pass psychological exams, said Bessent, a former coach and 38-year education veteran who is now the Wylie ISD’s assistant superintendent for operations — and a licensed school marshal. “You like to look for somebody that has military training.
“They can do every training police officers can do.”
In Texas, school marshals may carry concealed weapons unless their job involves direct, regular student contact.
In that case, weapons must be locked and secured on school premises and within the marshal’s immediate reach.
Marshals initially undergo 80 hours of training — Bessent has about 500 hours of active-shooter training — and are required to renew licenses every two years.
The training is conducted by a law enforcement academy that has been specifically prepared to provide the school marshal curriculum.
Topics include use of force, active shooter response and weapon proficiency.
Marshals use frangible ammunition designed not to ricochet, or penetrate walls, but “it’ll knock the side of your head off,” Bessent said.
The numbers of those trained as school marshals is confidential, and for the most part, so is the identity of marshals, who carry a police ID, Bessent said.
“You don’t want to tell your bad guys who your good guys are,” said Bessent, adding that between his district and the Abilene ISD, there are eight marshals, including women, and “we have the most.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least five states allow school employees to carry firearms at K-12 schools.
And, “NCSL has identified at least 19 states that have statutes allowing anyone who has permission from the school authority to carry a firearm at K-12 schools,” according to the organization’s website, including Texas.
In an email, Barbara Williams of the Texas Association of School Boards, said, “we know of at least 172 districts that allow staff to carry firearms.”
In addition to the Wylie and Abilene districts, 150 miles west of Fort Worth, recent media reports have identified the school district in Argyle, 30 miles north of Fort Worth, as having a school marshal program.
Joe McKenna, associate director for the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University, said studying the effectiveness of such programs is tough because it’s hard to measure prevention.
“We haven’t had any major incidents in Texas,” McKenna said. “All we can say is, it appears that Texas is ahead of the curve in terms of safety.”
McKenna said that while each school shooting has offered lessons: not waiting for a SWAT team to arrive, but for the first officer on the scene to go into a school where there’s an active shooter, for instance.
But Jason P. Nance a University of Florida Levin College of Law professor, said that even having police officers — often termed school resource officers, or SROs — in classrooms isn’t a cure all.
He noted that the armed school resource deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, remained outside as the shooting took place.
Nance said the presence of police in schools may well reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline; officers often treat what could simply be a student’s discipline problem as a criminal-justice matter.
As for licensed school marshals, “arming teachers doesn’t address the underlying characteristics needed to have a safe school,” such as positive relationships among the school community, Nance said.
Nance said he’s not aware of any research analyzing whether something like a school marshal program works.
“Right now the public demands a quick fix,” Nance said. “That’s why these programs are so appealing.”
McKenna said it’s important for the public conversation about school safety to continue.
Meanwhile, at Wylie ISD, Bessent is ready to act in an emergency.
“I don’t blame anybody who wants to shut the door and lock it,” Bessent said. “It’s not very natural to run to danger.”
But should the an armed threat appear in his school, “I pray I’m right there, good or bad,” Bessent said.